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That time I hung out with Leonard Cohen

A long ago evening at the Canadian songwriter's home turned theological and featured a made up bedtime story
Leonard Cohen in 2008 (CC-BY-SA Rama, Wikimedia Commons)
Leonard Cohen in 2008 (CC-BY-SA Rama, Wikimedia Commons)
Leonard Cohen in 2008 (CC-BY-SA Rama, Wikimedia Commons)
Leonard Cohen in 2008 (CC-BY-SA Rama, Wikimedia Commons)

So how was it that one fine day I got to spend most of the afternoon and early evening at Leonard Cohen’s Le Plateau home opposite Place du Portugal in Montreal’s former Jewish immigrant neighborhood?

Back in my early journalism days in the late 1970s, I was assigned to interview then 77-year-old Norman Friedman, a retired chocolate manufacturer, who had an enormous 52-year-old guest book. The guest book recorded every notable visitor who passed through the doors of the family home in lower Westmount — famous author Stephen Leacock, Enrico Caruso, leading lady Madame Donalda and many others.

Then the unexpected surprise entry on Dec. 5, 1937: a scrawled signature of three-year-old Leonard Cohen.

Another signature ten years later from Cohen read: “I have at least learned to write my name by myself.” A third entry on November 11, 1958:

This is the third time my name is entered in your book…Let us hope that the fourth time I sign my name I will finally have accomplished something which will merit my inclusion among your distinguished and beloved visitors.

And a fourth and final entry on October 28, 1969 revealed just his signature — Leonard Cohen — followed by the titles of his seven published books and the name of his newly released album.

How come? Friedman was first cousin to Cohen’s late father.

As my interview with Norman Friedman came to a close, he said he wouldn’t mind phoning his cousin the poet to arrange a time when we could meet. So, two weeks later, off I went to visit Leonard Cohen.

I arrived in the early afternoon, and we must have hit it off because I stayed and stayed and we talked and talked. He opened up a bottle of Eau de Vie, and we began drinking in the cozy comfort of his kitchen. Not having Cossack or Irish ancestors, I was quite blasted early on – to the point, that I began reading him some of MY poetry. He pulled out his guitar and played all the songs from his upcoming album. Alas, I don’t remember at all what songs he played.

The evening came on, and there was a knock at the door. Looking back, I can figure out now it was Suzanne Elrod who lived nearby and was dropping off their five-year-old son Adam to spend the night. They apparently had separate lives and shared responsibilities for their two children.

Cohen had excused himself to answer the door and then mentioned he was putting his son to bed. I could stay, he said. So I continued sitting in the semi-darkness.

Then came an experience I would never forget. I could hear Cohen and son making up their bedtime story together. This was not a read-from-the-storybook relationship. He explained later that every night they used their imaginations to create new episodes for their story. I heard a young voice excitedly speaking. Then Cohen’s voice. Then his son’s. Bach calls this contrapuntal. Soon I heard only one voice, and Cohen rejoined me.

After a few more minutes, I decided it was time to leave. I thanked him enormously and departed — grateful for the experience, to put it mildly.

Not more than three weeks later, Cohen’s mother died. His return to Montreal from abroad some time before was prompted by his desire to be there for her as the end neared.

The Montreal Star (may it also rest in peace) provided the small obituary notice, including the address where shiva was being held. I took the afternoon off from work and headed to the Belmont Avenue address in Westmount to pay my respects. I stood on the porch and rang the bell. No answer. I waited, then tried again. Still no answer.

Years later I would think of a loose parallel to what was about to happen. Eugene O’Neill’s heart-wrenching glimpse into his tortured family life Long Day’s Journey Into Night begins on the porch. The play moves across a psychological landscape, deeper and deeper into the house as the characters move deeper into their inner family dynamics.

I looked around to see a car pull up. I met Cohen’s sister and her husband as they came up the steps to welcome me and usher me in. There I was, me, all alone in the Cohen family home with his sister and brother-in-law. Pleasant niceties in the living room. I tried to remember details from his novel The Favorite Game to see what matched what I was seeing. The staircase going upstairs?

When a few more people arrived, everyone moved inward to the dining room table for tea. Family albums were open. Uncle Oscar on a camel at the pyramids in 1908. Anecdotes. Family revelations.

When another group was slated for tea, those I was with now moved into the kitchen — the heart of the house where the dirt was dished. All I remember being recounted were tales of the hurtful treatment of Cohen’s attractive, Russian-born mother at the hands of the less attractive, Canadian-born sisters-in-law. And his cool relations with his uncles. His refusal to ever get a suit from THEM. (They had a prestigious clothing business).

Then Cohen appeared at the door to the kitchen. I looked up and smiled. I had been there so long, felt so totally integrated, it was as if I were putting out the vibe: “Who are you again?”

The evening religious service for his mother began soon after and fortunately my real act of usefulness was helping to make up the quorum for prayer.

From the corner of my eye, I saw and heard Leonard Cohen saying Kaddish for his mother.

As the home began to fill up, I now felt really out of place and left quietly.

* * *

Back to my Eau de Vie fog of our first meeting, I can recall Cohen asking me at one point: “Do you think there are two worlds or one?”

Straining to concentrate and summoning up my best theological bluster, I said: “At least two worlds.”

He said: “One.”

I did not have the presence of mind to ask him what he meant. No Yenne Velt (Next World)? Or Yenne Velt as another dimension of the world we live in? I can only wonder after all these years what he knew and what he understood.

No matter. Hallelujah.

Mel Solman is a Montreal-born writer and teacher who lives in Toronto. His maternal grandparents were married in Montreal in January, 1916, officiated by Rabbi Hirsch Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s great-grandfather.

About the Author
Mel Solman is a Montreal-born writer and teacher who lives in Toronto.